What You Learn About George R.R. Martin After Hanging Out With Him for 801 Minutes

Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

Day 1: Thursday, October 23.
Providence, Rhode Island.

“I thought this would be spookier,” admits George R.R. Martin, the author of the Game of Thrones series, as he stares down at the grave of H. P. Lovecraft. We’re at Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, final resting place of the horror writer whom Martin numbers among his inspirations. “Is this the cemetery where there are ghouls underground eating the dead?” he wonders aloud.

There’s no sign of malevolent spirits, but a slight drizzle does add a little eerie atmosphere. Lovecraft, who died in 1937, is interred with his parents in a family plot. Fans have added a headstone of his own, at which they have left tributes: shells, bugs in boxes, a plastic watermelon slice. “I should leave him an offering, but I don’t have anything cool,” says Martin, who is wearing his trademark fisherman’s cap and suspenders. “I should have brought some Westeros coins. I usually have some in my pocket.”

Unfortunately, the coins—currency from the fictional world of Martin’s books, inscribed VALAR MORGHULIS  (“All men must die” in High Valyrian)—are back home in New Mexico, overlooked in the packing for this East Coast tour. At this stop, Martin is to receive the Brown University Library’s inaugural Harris Collection Literary Award. We leave a few regular old pennies on Lovecraft’s tombstone, and Martin wiggles his fingers under his chin in a salute to the author’s squidlike deity Cthulhu. “I eat calamari in my revenge!” Martin jokes. It’s hard to imagine what the reclusive Lovecraft would have made of today’s Providence, which is a lot less gloomy than it was in his day. Driving away from the cemetery and through town, Martin turns mock tour guide: “There’s Tortilla Flats, where he often ate his burritos! And ice cream—if you’re going to eat a kitten, you need some ice cream!”

At a dinner before the awards ceremony, held at the swanky Hope Club, he mentions to the various Brown staff members who are serving as hosts and moderators some questions he’s hoping to avoid during the Q&A. “I’m so tired of being asked who my favorite character is,” he says. “And I particularly dislike the question about who’s going to finish the books after I die. I told a Swiss journalist to F-off for that one.”

Martin, 66, knows that his millions of fans (and his collaborators at HBO) might wish that he chain himself to a keyboard until he finishes The Winds of Winter, the sixth volume of his “A Song of Ice and Fire” saga. As a stopgap to tide readers over, he’s overseen the creation of The World of Ice and Fire, a deluxe coffee-table compendium written from the perspective of one of Westeros’s learned “maesters,” but heaven knows how much slack he’ll get from fans who just want to know how the damned thing ends. Martin is good at keeping secrets, but he does offer up one tidbit—a reminder that the royal Daenerys Targaryen was given the histories of her world as a wedding gift but neglected to read them. “But you know who does know a lot of that?” he says coyly. “Tyrion.” These two characters, who have thus far not met, seem to be headed for a dramatic encounter; is he dropping a hint about how it will go? Martin chuckles and stays mum.

The awards ceremony is filled with local admirers, and they surround Martin at a reception afterward—when he sits down for a moment, he’s swarmed. He spends an hour parrying “ASOIAF” inquiries—perking up only for a question about what he calls “the scummy Dallas Cowboys.” (Martin is a huge Jets fan.) Finally, as it’s time to leave, he tosses off an obscure Lovecraftian farewell: “Watch out for shoggoths!”

Day 2: Friday, October 24.
New Haven, Connecticut.

Martin has taken a train to New Haven solely to eat at the renowned Modern Apizza restaurant. The visit is going to be even more pleasurable, he says, because it doesn’t involve a book signing. Not that he minds autographing books—it’s the endless personal inscribing that hurt, and he’s had to give it up. “Not after Slovenia,” he says. “I signed for seven hours, and it almost killed me. People were fainting in line, and I was beginning to slur my words. My mind was going.”

As we wait for our food, he offers his thoughts on a variety of topics—Martin is a pleasantly rambling conversationalist— including whether the walled-off world of Westeros, his great subject, has much to do with 21st-century life on Earth. “I live in the world, I read the news,” he says, taking a sip of Diet Coke. “But I tend to take a longer view than most people. Sometimes it seems an awful lot of our leaders and commentators have a very narrow, present-day view. We have a kind of certainty that borders on arrogance: ‘What we believe is the correct thing, and people in the past didn’t know anything, so let’s reject that.’ People a hundred years from now are going to look back at us and think we were deluded.”

The pizzas arrive—they’re very good—and cutting into them inspires a brief digression about archaic blade usage. “I’m not sure we should have the death penalty,” Martin muses, “but if you want to keep the death penalty, then we should go back to the guillotine. The guillotine is the most humane method of execution ever devised. It never missed.”

The next topic? Nudity. “If a woman decided to go shopping on a hot day and wanted to take off her shirt? A man might run into some trouble, but he wouldn’t be arrested on the street”—though admittedly neither would she in New York, where it’s legal. Is Martin a Free the Nipple supporter? (The show’s producers would seem to be.) “I guess so!” he chortles. “It’s a saner attitude. It’s the concealing that sexualizes it.” He reaches for a slice of the clams-casino-style pizza. “It’s a little salty,” he says. “I’m not crazy about this.” On the way back to New York, he dozes off for half an hour in the car.

Day 3: Sunday, October 26.
New York.

Martin is slumped in a chair backstage at the 92nd Street Y, about to give a talk about The World of Ice and Fire. He’s a little bummed, both because he’s left the Jets game early and because the team played badly (“They didn’t just lose, they stunk up the place!”). Plus he was recognized by about a dozen fans. “It’s the price of success, I guess. Everyone likes a little fame. It’s flattering when it happens here or there, when you can turn it on or off. But it’s constant.” He motions to photos of Amy Poehler and Woody Allen hanging on the dressing-room wall. “It’s only a small taste of what they might get,” he says, “but it’s too much for me.”

The appearance at the Y goes well. During the conversation, Martin makes light of his ever-present albatross: A fan asks what his heraldic slogan would be, and the novelist jokes, “Deadline? What deadline?” Afterward, Martin and his ever-patient and wisecracking wife, Parris—whom he married in 2011 after a 30-year courtship—decide to pay a nostalgic visit to a hot-dog place a few blocks away, since we’re in her old neighborhood. “My wife is a Papaya King girl,” he says warmly. Martha and Doug, two members of the fan meet-up group Brotherhood Without Banners, join us, and Martin orders two Green Hots, which come loaded with jalapeño peppers. Then he spots a sign for fried Twinkies, and his eyes light up. Martha, in a motherly tone, intervenes: “George, I’m sorry, but if you try to order one of those, I’m going to chop your hand off.” Martin backs off. Briefly. Then: “What about the fried Oreos?”

*This article appears in the November 3, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

801 Minutes With George R.R. Martin